Secret Meeting score: 100
by Mark Jackson
Tracks including Wuthering Heights, Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God), Hounds of Love, This Woman’s Work, Babooshka, Wow, and Top Of The City (to name but a few) are woven deeply into the consciousness of music fans around the world. Contemporary artists including Anohni, Bjork, Chris Martin, Florence Welch, Big Boi and St Vincent have all expressed admiration and taken inspiration from Bush’s work. We thought it only right to join in her 60th birthday celebrations that took place this week with a look back at one of our favourite records – her eighth studio album, Aerial.
All too simple existing reviews chart Aerial as a glimpse into the mundanity of Bush’s domestic life. Having withdrawn completely and deliberately from the public consciousness to pursue a ‘normal life’ following the release of 1993’s The Red Shoes, Kate became mum to son Bertie and only returned following a self-imposed twelve year hiatus.
Aerial is a double album of two distinct acts. Act one, A Sea of Honey, contains the album’s only single, King of the Mountain – Kate’s observations on the pressures faced with the ‘achievement’ of extreme fame as presented through the questioning of Elvis’ potential ongoing existence- ‘Elvis, are you out there somewhere, Looking like a happy man? In the snow with Rosebud, And king of the mountain.’
What follows is the bizarre and perhaps inexplicable, although thoroughly fascinating, song charting the numerical equivalent of Pi, and a deeply personal and staggeringly heartfelt sonnet to her son, Bertie. Renaissance sounding guitars (played, as throughout the album, by Kate’s husband and Bertie’s father, Dan McIntosh) blend with a beautiful string arrangement that shifts the musicality to territories that previously remained new even to one of music’s great innovators. It is here that Bush is at the most joyful she has ever been on record and it is difficult not to get caught in the emotion as she describes “the most wilful, the most beautiful, the most truly fantastic smile I’ve ever seen.”
Mrs Bartolozzi is a relaxed piano ballad, the chorus simply comprised of the repeated line “washing machine”. It’s a track that runs Pi close in contention for strangest album inclusion of all time. However, there is once again a captivating charm, not to mention a deeply transfixing and profoundly erotic undertone- ‘I watched them go ’round and ’round, My blouse wrapping itself in your trousers, Oh the waves are going out, My skirt floating up around my waist, As I wade out into the surf, Oh and the waves are coming in, Oh and you’re standing right behind me, Little fish swim between my legs.’
Act one concludes with the achingly beautiful A Coral Room. A track that according to album engineer Del Palmer, was recorded in one take in a darkened, candle-lit room. It was the last track to be written for the album and one that apparently very nearly did not get included because of its deeply personal content regarding the passing of Kate’s mother. The only track on the album to be just Kate and piano, it casts a heartachingly mournful spirit that is the perfect accompaniment to the themes of love and loss. In a 2005 BBC interview, Kate said of A Coral Room… ‘There was a little brown jug actually. The song is really about the passing of time. I like the idea of coming from this big expansive, outside world of sea and cities into this very small space. It’s talking about a memory of my mother and this little brown jug. I always remember hearing years ago this thing about a sort of Zen approach to life, where, you would hold something in your hand, knowing that, at some point, it would break, it would no longer be there.’
Act two, A Sky of Honey, is a standalone concept album that is meant to be listened to in its 42-minute entirety. At the time of release, following retailer ‘feedback’, EMI convinced Kate to break the track into nine separate songs, which is how they appeared on the physical release. However, she withheld Aerial from all streaming sites for five years until agreement was reached that A Sky of Honey was made available as the singular listening experience that was originally intended.
A Sky of Honey is quite possibly the greatest sequence of music ever put together and is as masterful a concept as Kate’s 1986 Hounds of Love feature, The Ninth Wave. Here though, the production is much slicker, the musicality more relaxed, and the overall work evokes a lush and beautiful landscape seldom achieved in non-visual art forms. A Sky of Honey is a joyful and organic collection of music that broods with all the romanticism of spending time at a jubilant celebration with a soulmate. It’s a dreamy meditation on the passing of a beautiful 24-hour period. Never has a 42-minute sequence of music stimulated the senses so brilliantly as to induce a mindful state, captivating attention to the passing only of the unfolding beauty of the record. It is simply impossible to focus upon anything else while this staggeringly beautiful passage of music outs.
A Sky of Honey was also the most outstanding act of Kate’s 2014 Hammersmith Apollo residencies – the centrepiece of the greatest show that I have ever witnessed. Never has a flow of music worked so well as the accompaniment to a performance art piece as put on by Kate et al on those 22 nights in September 2014.
A Sky of Honey is a conceptual masterpiece. It builds into a euphoric and deeply rewarding crescendo where ‘all the birds are laughing’ and whereby everyone is encouraged ‘come on lets join in.’ It cements Aerial as perhaps the greatest work of the world’s most astounding and important female artist, whose musical legacy remains unsurpassed by all but a tiny elite of similarly vital visionaries.